Where Does Physical Education Belong in Our Schools?

03/31/2010  |  JAMES F. SALLIS, Ph.D.
physical fitness

Physical education (PE) is at the intersection of at least three major academic thoroughfares. PE has roots in exercise and sports science and represents a primary means of applying the science. PE is itself a pedagogical field and is practiced within educational systems. The public health field claims PE as a health intervention that is of increasing value due to the childhood obesity epidemic. Major intersections are often centers of culture and commerce, but the turf surrounding PE is often contested. 

Over the decades PE programs in universities have split from exercise science departments because they could not reconcile the science and application missions.  This may not be too unfortunate, because neither the scientists nor the PE practitioners tried too hard to bridge the gap between science and practice.  Because all states have some kind of school physical education requirements, education departments in universities and state governments have no choice but to accommodate PE. However, there is a notable lack of enthusiasm for PE on the part of the education establishment.  The federal Department of Education provides little leadership or support for PE.  Many state education departments refuse to hire a physical education coordinator.  After 100 years in the schools, PE is not considered a core subject and education departments remain unsure what to do with PE.  The percentage of students taking PE has declined in recent years.

In my view, of the three disciplines, public health has the highest level of interest in PE, because it is part of coordinated school health and physical activity has many physical and mental health benefits.  The obesity epidemic has only heightened interest in PE, because obesity is seen as a crisis needing urgent attention.  But public health’s interests in PE are often not reciprocated.  PE professionals seem much more interested in gaining status as a core academic discipline than in ensuring PE is optimized to benefit children’s health. 

Can PE contribute optimally to both educational and health goals?  There is a clear illustration that public health’s priorities for PE are not shared in the PE field. The public health concern is that PE is the only required time for physical activity that affects almost all students on a regular basis. Remember that almost all of the school day is enforced sitting. It is essential to ensure that opportunity for activity and health promotion is not missed.

The Healthy People health promotion objectives for the US adopted a goal that at least 50 percent of PE class time would be spent in moderate to vigorous physical activity (MVPA). Everyone is aware that “PE is more than just physical activity,” but the objective does not require that PE would be reduced to exercise programs where students run all the time.  Active learning, less-active skill drills, game play, and some didactics would seem to fit comfortably in classes that are at least 50 percent active. But studies show 50 percent MVPA requires planning, and often training and an appropriate curriculum.  Major studies funded by the NIH, such as SPARK, LEAP, and TAAG showed that activity levels can be raised in elementary, middle, and high schools, so the 50 percent MVPA is realistic and evidence-based. In fact, the SPARK study lead to the dissemination of the SPARK PE curriculum across United States and is currently a model for evidence-based quality physical education.

The 50 percent MVPA objective was announced in 1990, repeated in 2000, and is likely to remain in the 2010 editions of Healthy People.  CDC’s Community Guide recommends “enhanced” or highly active PE as an evidence-based intervention to promote physical activity. The public health community is strong in its support for PE.  However, to my knowledge, no state education department, no PE professional organization, and no school district has adopted the 50 percent MVPA objective as a requirement or official goal.

This situation demonstrates the need for ongoing dialog between education and health departments at the national, state, and local levels, to work together to achieve multiple aims through excellent PE.  Because improved PE would benefit health, perhaps part of PE’s funding should come from the health sector.  There are several examples of this approach being effective, so it is a model that could be expanded.

Dr. Sallis is a Professor of Psychology at San Diego State University. His major professional interest is developing and evaluating programs to improve physical activity and other health habits. He is recognized internationally as an innovator of programs to promote physical activity and sports in children.

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